A MINOR FESTIVAL
As I just mentioned, Lag B’omer is a day of rejoicing. One does not fast for a yahrtzeit (there is a disagreement whether a choson and kallah fast if they are getting married on Lag B’omer [see Mishnah Berurah 573:7]), and eulogies are not said (Rama 131:6; Meiri, Yevamos 62b; Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 233). According to some, one should eat a seudah on Lag B’omer (Darchei Moshe 493:1; Aruch Hashulchan 493:5). Additionally, some sources maintain that Lag B’omer is especially considered a chag for cheder rebbis and their students (Leket Yosher pg. 97; Minhagei Wormeisha pg. 175).
Several reasons have been suggested as to why Lag B’omer is such an auspicious day:
1) According to one opinion in the Midrash, the matzah that the Bnei Yisroel took out of Mitzrayim lasted for thirty days until the fifteenth of Iyar. They then went for three days without bread, and on the eighteenth of Iyar (Lag B’omer), the man started to fall. In order to remember this great miracle, this day is celebrated as a Yom Tov (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 233).
2) The sifrei Kabballah explain that while the entire time period of sefirah is one of din, or strict judgment, Lag B’omer is day of total rachamim, and is therefore worthy of being celebrated (Sha’ar Hakavanos, Sefiras Ha’omer #12).
3) The most famous reason for the Lag B’omer celebrations is the fact that Rebbi Akiva’s students stopped dying. We will now discuss this topic at length.
A MOURNING PERIOD
The Gemara relates (Yevamos 62b) that Rebbi Akiva had 24,000 students and they all died during one time period – between Pesach and Shavuos – because they did not honor each other. This caused a tremendous loss of Torah scholarship, until Rebbi Akiva taught five new students, namely, Rebbi Meir, Rebbi Yehuda, Rebbi Yosi, Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rebbi Elazar ben Shamu’a. Those five talmidim succeeded in reestablishing Torah learning at that time.
The Tur (Orach Chaim 493) writes that the custom is not to hold weddings between Pesach and Shavuos. The reason for this is in order not to have too much simcha because the students of Rebbi Akiva died at that time. In some places the custom is not to take haircuts, and there are those that do take haircuts from Lag B’omer and onwards, because they say that the talmidim stopped dying then.
The Beis Yosef (ad loc.) cites a Midrash that they stopped dying fifteen days before Shavuos, the thirty-fourth day of the omer. Thus, they died on the thirty-third and on the thirty-fourth. For this reason, the Shulchan Aruch (ad loc.) paskens that one may not take haircuts until the thirty-fourth day of the omer. This in fact is the custom of some Sefardic communities. However, the Rama comments on the Shulchan Aruch: “In our countries we do not follow his opinion. Rather, we take haircuts on the thirty-third and we increase simcha slightly and we do not recite tachanun.” The source of this opinion is the Maharil who maintains that the students of Rebbi Akiva stopped dying on the thirty-third day of the omer.
This concept of “increasing simcha” on Lag B’omer is difficult to understand. The fact that Rebbi Akiva’s talmidim stopped dying is not a cause for simcha, rather it is only sufficient cause to cease the customary forms of mourning practiced during the sefirah period. Additionally, a more basic difficulty is that there is no consolation in the fact that they stopped dying – there was no one left to die!
A simple approach to this problem can be found in the Biur HaGra (493), who cites a source in the Gemara for such a “simcha.” The Gemara states that the fifteenth of Av is considered to be a festive day because the Bnei Yisroel stopped dying on that day after forty years in the desert. We thus see that when people stop dying there is a cause for simcha, even though people have in fact, died.
THE NEW REPLACE THE OLD
The Pri Chodosh (493:2) explains that the basis for simcha on Lag B’omer is that Rebbi Akiva’s new talmidim, who he started teaching later, did not die. This concept has its foundations in the writings of the Arizal, who contends that it was on Lag B’omer itself that Rebbi Akiva conferred semicha on his new students, Rebbi Meir, Rebbi Yehuda, Rebbi Yosi, Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rebbi Elazar ben Shamu’a. It is for this reason that Lag B’omer is also referred to as “yom simchaso shel Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai,” “the day of Rebbi Shimon’s rejoicing” (Sha’ar Hakavanos pp 86-87; Eid Hagal Hazeh [Rav Yaakov Moshe Hillel, shlit”a] pp. 4-5).
In Eretz Yisroel, there is a very popular minhag to go to Meiron on Lag B’omer. A lesser-known custom is to go to the kevarim of Rebbi Akiva and Rebbi Meir in Teveryah on that day as well. The reason for this is based on what we just mentioned, that Rebbi Akiva gave semicha to his new talmidim on Lag B’omer, thereby assuring the continuity of the Oral Tradition. Therefore, Lag B’omer is not only a day of simcha for Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, but it is also a day of simcha for his teacher, Rebbi Akiva and for Rebbi Meir, another of the five talmidim (Sefer Hillula Rabbah; Eid Hagal Hazeh, pg. 6).
While we mention the minhag of visiting other tombs on Lag B’omer, it is interesting to note that Rav Chaim Kreisworth zt”l, the Rav of Antwerp, related that the minhag in Europe was to travel to the kever of the Rama in Krakow on Lag B’omer, whose yahrtzeit is also on that day. Additionally, the Rama (Orach Chaim 493:2) is the first halachic authority who cites the concept of Lag B’omer being a day of simcha as practical halacha (Hilchos Chag b’Chag, Sefiras Ha’omer, pg. 97).
REBBI SHIMON’S YAHRTZEIT?
There are several sources that indicate that Lag B’omer is the day when Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai passed away. Some of these base themselves on various versions of the writings of the Arizal and his talmidim who wrote that Lag B’omer is “yom shemeis Rashbi” (acronym for Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai), the day that he died. However, there are those who argue that the letter “cheis” was inadvertently omitted from those texts, and instead of reading “yom shemeis,” the correct version is “yom simchas.” Thus changing it from the “day of his death” to the “day of his rejoicing” (See Birkei Yosef 493:4; comments on Birkei Yosef, ad loc.; Sefer Maris Ha’ayin, Likutim 7:8; Eid Hagal Hazeh pp. 5-6).
Another source which indicates that Lag B’omer is Rebbi Shimon’s yahrtzeit is the Idra Zuta, the portion of the Zohar which is a record of Rebbi Shimon’s teachings on the day of his petirah and the events that occurred then. It states there that after Rebbi Shimon passed away, they heard a Heavenly voice that announced: “Arise, come and gather for the ‘hillula’ of Rebbi Shimon.” Although the simple understanding of this passage is that everyone should gather on that day which he died, some interpret this to mean that there should be an annual festive gathering on his yahrtzeit (Kaf Hachayim 493:26; Eid Hagal Hazeh pg. 12).
We mentioned earlier the minhag of going to the graves of Rebbi Akiva and his talmidim on Lag B’omer, as it is a day of simcha for them as well. However, the prevalent custom is to go solely to the kever of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai. This minhag Yisroel seems to bear out the opinion that Lag B’omer is Rebbi Shimon’s yahrtzeit, and the celebration of Lag B’omer is his alone (Sha’ar Hakavanos pg. 87; Eid Hagal Hazeh, pg. 12).
SIMCHA ON A YAHRTZEIT
One of the difficulties that the Acharonim grapple with regarding Lag B’omer being Rebbi Shimon’s yahrtzeit, is how the day of Rebbi Shimon’s death can be celebrated as a day of simcha. Generally, a yahrtzeit is a day designated for teshuva and fasting, not a celebration. Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 580:1-2) lists several dates upon which various tzadikim passed away and states that it is considered proper to fast on those days (see Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #233 and Shu”t Shoel u’Mayshiv [Chamisha’ah] #39).
One answer to this question is based on the Gemara (Shabbos 33b) which relates that Rebbi Shimon hid in a cave for twelve years because he had been condemned to death by the government. Therefore, the fact that he lived out his life and died a natural death as opposed to being executed is considered a simcha. Based on this, the minhag of going to Rebbi Shimon’s tomb on the yahrtzeit also has special significance. The law was that anyone executed by government order was not allowed to be buried. The fact that Rebbi Shimon is buried is an indication of the great miracle that took place and going to the kever commemorates that miracle (Shu”t Sheim Aryeh #14).
Another reason for turning Rebbi Shimon’s yahrtzeit into a celebration can be found in the first section of Eid Hagal Hazeh, by Rav Yaakov Moshe Hillel, shlit”a. To quote his explanation is beyond the scope of this article, as the author bases himself on the writings of the Arizal and other Kabbalistic concepts.
TRAVELING TO MEIRON
One of the minhagim of Lag B’omer is to go to the tomb of Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meiron. This custom is cited by the Ateres Zekeinim (Orach Chaim 493), who writes: “It is the custom in Eretz Yisroel to go to the tomb of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, zt”l, and of his son, Rebbi Elazar, on the thirty-third day of the omer.”
An even earlier source of this minhag is Rav Chaim Vital zt”l, who states: “Regarding those who go to the tomb of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rebbi Elazar his son in Meiron on Lag B’omer, I have seen my teacher zt”l, these eight years going with his wife and family and he was there those three days.” Additionally, Rav Chaim Vital relates what he heard from another student of the Arizal. Namely, that the year before Rav Chaim Vital first came to the Arizal, the Arizal went to Meiron to give his son his first haircut. The Arizal did so amongst great feasting and joy (Pri Eitz Chaim, Sha’ar Sefiras Ha’omer, chap. 7).
Apparently, the custom of going to Meiron on Lag B’omer was practiced even before the time of the Arizal. People would leave their homes weeks before and travel great distances in order to be at Rebbi Shimon’s kever on Lag B’omer. Rav Chaim Vital cites proofs in order to validate this minhag Yisroel (ibid.; Eih Hagal Hazeh, pg. 23-25).
To further emphasize the uniqueness of Lag B’omer, Rav Chaim Vital cites a story that occurred one year on that day. Rav Avraham Halevi had a custom to recite the tefillah of Nacheim every day in the bracha of “v’li’Yerushalayim.” (Generally, this is only added to Shemoneh Esrei on Tisha b’Av during Mincha.) As per his custom, he recited this in Meiron on Lag B’omer as well. Upon completing his tefillah, Rav Yitzchok Luria (the Arizal) said to him in the name of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, ‘Say to this man, why does he recite Nacheim on the day of my joy? Therefore he will soon be in consolation.’ Shortly after this incident, Rav Avraham’s eldest son died, and people came to console him (ibid.; see also Ateres Zekeinim, Shulchan Aruch 493).
OPPOSITION TO THE CUSTOM
Several objections to the custom of Lag B’omer celebrations can be found in the writings of the Acharonim. As is known, the prevalent custom in Eretz Yisroel in general and in Meiron specifically is to light bonfires in honor of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai. This minhag is probably as old as the minhag of traveling to Meiron for Lag B’omer. Apparently, the custom had been to burn expensive articles of clothing and other valuable objects in the bonfires of Meiron. This practice in particular raised the ire of several Acharonim.
The Chasam Sofer writes in his responsa (Yoreh Deah 233), that although the people going to Meiron do so lesheim Shamayim and they will undoubtedly receive much reward, he himself prefers to be among those who refrain from traveling there. This is so that he does not have to be there and deviate from their practices in their presence, as he does not wish to join them in this celebration. His main contention is that it is incorrect to institute a holiday on a day that is not mentioned in the Gemara or in the poskim and that is not the anniversary of a miracle. Even though he goes on to justify Lag B’omer as a day of simcha based on Kabbalistic concepts, he concludes that he is unsure whether they are permitted to institute it as a holiday.
Another personage to take issue with the practices in Meiron on Lag B’omer was Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson, the author of Shu”t Sho’el u’Meishiv (Chamisha’ah #39). He starts with a complaint that we mentioned earlier in this article – how can one commemorate the passing of a tzaddik by making it into a festive day? Such a day should be spent fasting and doing teshuva. He then goes on to argue against the practice of burning expensive clothes in the bonfires and maintains that it violates the prohibition of bal tashchis – wanton destruction. He contends that it cannot be that such practices took place during the lifetimes of the Arizal and Rav Yosef Karo. Rather, they probably observed Lag B’omer through limud HaTorah, davening and tefilos that through Rebbi Shimon’s death and through this day, mercy should be aroused for all of Klal Yisroel.
And yet a third Acharon, Rav Yosef ben Chaim Chazan, the author of Shu”t Chikrei Leiv (Yoreh Deah #11) also firmly disagrees with the custom of burning articles of clothing. In doing so, he makes an interesting observation. Even during the great celebrations that took place in the Beis HaMikdash during Succos – the Simchas Beis HaSho’eivah – the only things burned were the worn out pants and belts of the kohanim. These items were used as wicks to provide lighting at the Simchas Beis HaSho’eivah (see Mishnah Succah 5:3).
JUSTIFYING THE CELEBRATIONS
In 5634 (1874), the Rav of Tzefas, Rav Shmuel Heller zt”l, published a pamphlet entitled “Kavod Melachim” in which he justifies the Lag B’omer practices in question. He maintains that the practice of burning expensive articles of clothing does not transgress the prohibition of bal tashchis. He explains that bal tashchis only applies in a situation where one receives no benefit from the destruction except for the destruction itself. In the case of the destruction of clothing in the Lag B’omer bonfires, however, a positive aspect is achieved.
This is based on the concept that the more one is involved in the physical world and connected to it, the further he is removed from the spiritual. In the same vein, a person who thinks too highly of himself, is also limited in how much ruchniyus he can acquire. In order to achieve spirituality and its inherent sublime joy, one must disconnect himself from the physical trappings of this world and subdue his haughtiness. Thus, in order to connect to the tremendous energies of ruchniyus that emanate from Meiron on Lag B’omer, the participants found it necessary to detach themselves from gashmiyus and to abnegate themselves. This was accomplished by burning their expensive garments, as this is a method of cutting oneself off from the physical world and its luxuries. Additionally, by contemplating how easy it is for one to lose his expensive physical trappings, it becomes easier for one to become more modest.
In his work, Rav Heller relates a fascinating incident with Rav Chaim ben Atar, the Ohr HaChaim. He writes that when he was young, he heard from several rabbonim, who had heard from their fathers what they saw when the Ohr HaChaim visited Meiron on Lag B’omer. Upon arriving in Meiron, he dismounted from his donkey at the bottom of the hill upon which the tomb of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai was located. He then proceeded to crawl up the mount on his hands and knees. The entire way up, “he bellowed like a beast of burden and exclaimed, ‘How can I, a lowly creature, enter into the place of fire that gives forth tongues of flame?’” Rav Heller goes on to relate that when the Ohr HaChaim was there, he was in an exalted state of simcha, and he himself also burned several expensive articles of clothing.
Another source which justifies the celebrations in Meiron is a letter sent by the Rabbonim of Teveria to Rav Chizkiyahu Medini, the author of Sdei Chemed. He originally wrote to them outlining the complaints of the Chasam Sofer and the Shoel u’Meishiv and asked them if they knew of any justification for the minhag. They wrote at length to defend the custom, and amongst their arguments, they claim that in fact there are appointees who try to dissuade people from burning expensive garments. They also encourage the people to donate the value of the article to tzedakah. If someone did testify to the fact that expensive clothing was burned, it was either because: 1) the words of the appointees were ignored, 2) it was done when those in charge were not present, 3) or they merely heard someone say that he was going to burn it; however, it is entirely possible that he was persuaded not to do so (see Sdei Chemed, Asifas Dinim, Eretz Yisroel #6).
The Rabbanim of Teveria also disagree with the Shoel u’Meishiv’s contention that there were no celebrations in Meiron during the time of the Arizal and Beis Yosef, only limud HaTorah and tefilos. They cite various sefarim that testify that the opposite is true; that the Beis Yosef and the gedolim of his generation indeed participated in the Lag B’omer celebrations in Meiron.
BURNING CLOTHES: A DIFFERENT APPROACH
An interesting explanation of what the burning of clothes has to do with Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai was advanced by Rav Yehoshua Trunk of Kutna, at the end of his work on the Rambam, Yeshu’os Malko (Likutei Torah pg. 152). He explains that when Rebbi Shimon was learning in the cave for twelve years, he was on the same level as Adom HaRishon was before he sinned. And it was for this reason that just as Adom in Gan Eden did not have need for clothes, so too Rebbi Shimon did not wear his clothes (they sat in sand up to their necks – see Shabbos 33b). As a remembrance of this great level achieved by Rebbi Shimon, clothes are burned in his honor.
In Eretz Yisroel, the minhag is to light bonfires in honor of Rebbi Shimon on the evening of Lag B’omer both in Meiron and elsewhere (Sefer Eretz Yisroel 18:3). Two of the reasons that have been suggested are:
1) It is related in the Idra Zuta (end of Ha’azinu) that on the day of Rebbi Shimon’s petirah, he was revealing hidden secrets of the Torah. Due to the great level of kedusha that emanated from those teachings, a fire surrounded the house where Rebbi Shimon was teaching. Therefore, in honor of Rebbi Shimon, bonfires are lit to remind us of his great level of kedusha and the kedushas HaTorah that he taught (Hilchos Chag b’Chag, Sefiras Ha’omer, pg. 97).
2) Additionally, it is related that on the day that Rebbi Shimon died, the sun stopped and the day was longer in order to allow him more time to reveal more hidden aspects of the Torah (Moadei Kodesh, Shavuos 17:28).
RAINBOWS AND BOWS AND ARROWS
The Yerushalmi (Brachos 9:2) relates that during Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai’s lifetime, the rainbow never appeared. The reason for this is because the rainbow is a “reminder” kaviyachol that Hashem should not destroy the world, chalilah. When there is someone alive who is a complete tzaddik, this reminder is unnecessary (Rashi, Kesuvos 77b, s.v., im kein). As a remembrance of this, some have a minhag to shoot bows and arrows (Bnei Yisaschar, Iyar 3:3). (As an interesting aside, some point out that the gematria of “Rabban Shimon bar Yochai” is the same as “Hakeshes,” “the rainbow” – 805 [Sefer Va’yedabeir Moshe, quoted in Moadei Kodesh, chap. 17, footnote #67].)
Another Lag B’omer related custom is to give three-year-old boys their first haircuts on that day and train them in the mitzvah of peyos. The source of this minhag is the incident cited above, that Rav Yitzchok Luria, the Arizal, took his son to Meiron and gave him his first haircut on Lag B’omer.
One possible explanation as to the connection between Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai and giving a child his first haircut is based on the Gemara in Makkos (17b) which states that if a woman gives birth to a son, she should give birth to a child like Rebbi Shimon. Rashi explains that she should daven that her son should be like Rebbi Shimon. Therefore, the minhag became to specifically give haircuts on Rebbi Shimon’s yahrtzeit in order to remind parents that they should daven that their child should be like Rebbi Shimon (Moadei Kodesh, Shavuos, chap. 18, footnote #40).
TORAH: LOSS AND REBIRTH
The customary mourning during the sefirah period is not only over the premature deaths of the 24,000 talmidim of Rebbi Akiva. Rather, it is primarily over the loss of the Torah knowledge transmitted to them by their teacher. As the Gemara states (Menachos 29b), Rebbi Akiva would expound “mounds and mounds” of halachos on every “tag” (crown) of the letters in the Sefer Torah.
Rebbi Akiva taught these halachos to his talmidim and upon their deaths that knowledge was lost. Their deaths came about because they did not respect one another. It is perhaps for this reason that Rebbi Akiva said, “Ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha – ze klal gadol baTorah,” “Love your fellow as yourself – this is an important rule in Torah.” Loving and respecting one’s fellow can have ramifications for the loss of Torah scholarship or for its continuity.
Lag B’omer, on the other hand, is a day of rejoicing, as the mesorah of Torah she’baal peh in that generation was assured on that day. The Gemara says (Sanhedrin 86a) that all of the Oral Torah that we possess comes to us via the talmidim of Rebbi Akiva.
This article originally appeared in the US edition of the Yated Neeman.